DIY Internet-Enabled Home Control System

Why shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars on various home control systems (HCS) when you have the skills and resources to build your own? You can design and implement sophisticated Internet-enabled systems with free tools and some careful planning.

John Breitenbach did just that. He used a microcontroller, free software, and a cloud-based data platform to construct a remote monitoring system for his home’s water heater. The innovative design can email or text status messages and emergency alerts to a smartphone. You can build a similar system to monitor any number of appliances, rooms, or buildings.

An abridged version of Breitenbach’s article, “Internet-Enabled Home Control” (Circuit Cellar 264, July 2012), appears below. (A link to the entire article and an access password are noted at the end of this post.) Breitenbach writes:

Moving from the Northeast to North Carolina, my wife and I were surprised to find that most homes don’t have basements. In the north, the frost line is 36˝–48 ˝ below the surface. To prevent frost heave, foundations must be dug at least that deep. So, digging down an extra few feet to create a basement makes sense. Because the frost line is only 15 ˝ in the Raleigh area, builders rarely excavate the additional 8’ to create basements.

The lack of basements means builders must find unique locations for a home’s mechanical systems including the furnace, AC unit, and water heater. I was shocked to find that my home’s water heater is located in the attic, right above one of the bedrooms (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: My home’s water heater is located in our attic. (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

During my high school summers I worked for my uncle’s plumbing business (“Breitenbach Plumbing—We’re the Best, Don’t Call the Rest”) and saw firsthand the damage water can do to a home. Water heaters can cause some dramatic end-of-life plumbing failures, dumping 40 or more gallons of water at once followed by the steady flow of the supply line.

Having cleaned up the mess of a failed water heater in my own basement up north, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I discovered the water heater in my North Carolina attic. For peace of mind, especially when traveling, I instrumented my attic so I could be notified immediately if water started to leak. My goal was to use a microcontroller so I could receive push notifications via e-mails or text messages. In addition to emergency messages, status messages sent on a regular basis reassure me the system is running. I also wanted to use a web browser to check the current status at any time.

MCU & SENSOR

The attic monitor is based on Renesas Electronics’s YRDKRX62N demonstration kit, which features the RX62N 32-bit microcontroller (see Photo 2). Renesas has given away thousands of these boards to promote the RX, and the boards are also widely available through distributors. The YRDK board has a rich feature set including a graphics display, push buttons, and an SD-card slot, plus Ethernet, USB, and serial ports. An Analog Devices ADT7420 digital I2C temperature sensor also enables you to keep an eye on the attic temperature. I plan to use this for a future addition to the project that compares this temperature to the outside air temperature to control an attic fan.

Photo 2: The completed board, which is based on a Renesas Electronics YRDKRX62N demonstration kit. (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

SENSING WATER

Commercial water-detection sensors are typically made from two exposed conductive surfaces in close proximity to each other on a nonconductive surface. Think of a single-sided PCB with no solder mask and tinned traces (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: A leak sensor (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

These sensors rely on the water conductivity to close the circuit between the two conductors. I chose a sensor based on this type of design for its low cost. But, once I received the sensors, I realized I could have saved myself a few bucks by making my own sensor from a couple of wires or a piece of proto-board.

When standing water on the sensor shorts the two contacts, the resistance across the sensor drops to between 400 kΩ and 600 kΩ. The sensor is used as the bottom resistor in a voltage divider with a 1-MΩ resistor up top. The output of the divider is routed to the 12-bit analog inputs on the RX62N microcontroller. Figure 1 shows the sensor interface circuit. When the voltage read by the analog-to-digital converter (ADC) drops below 2 V, it’s time to start bailing. Two sensors are connected: one in the catch pan under the water heater, and a second one just outside the catch pan to detect failures in the small expansion tank.

Figure 1: The sensor interface to the YRDK RX62N board

COMMUNICATIONS CHOICES

One of my project goals was to push notifications to my cell phone because Murphy’s Law says water heaters are likely to fail while you’re away for the weekend. Because I wanted to keep the project costs low, I used my home’s broadband connection as the gateway for the attic monitor. The Renesas RX62N microcontroller includes a 100-Mbps Ethernet controller, so I simply plugged in the cable to connect the board to my home network. The open-source µIP stack supplied by Renesas with the YRDK provides the protocol engine needed to talk to the Internet.

There were a couple of complications with using my home network as the attic monitor’s gateway to the world. It is behind a firewall built into my router and, for security reasons, I don’t want to open up ports to the outside world.

My Internet service provider (ISP) occasionally changes the Internet protocol (IP) address associated with my cable modem. So I would never know what address to point my web browser. I needed a solution that would address both of these problems. Enter Exosite, a company that provides solutions for cloud-based, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

TALKING TO THE CLOUD

Exosite provides a number of software components and services that enable M2M communications via the cloud. This is a different philosophy from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems I’ve used in the past. The control systems I’ve worked on over the years typically involve a local host polling the hundreds or thousands of connected sensors and actuators that make up a commercial SCADA system. These systems are generally designed to be monitored locally at a single location. In the case of the attic monitor, my goal was to access a limited number of data points from anywhere, and have the system notify me rather than having to continuously poll. Ideally, I’d only hear from the device when there was a problem.

Exosite is the perfect solution: the company publishes a set of simple application programming interfaces (APIs) using standard web protocols that enable smart devices to push data to their servers in the cloud in real time. Once the data is in the cloud, events, alerts, and scripts can be created to do different things with the data—in my case, to send me an e-mail and SMS text alert if there is anything wrong with my water heater. Connected devices can share data with each other or pull data from public data sources, such as public weather stations. Exosite has an industrial-strength platform for large-scale commercial applications. It provides free access to it for the open-source community. I can create a free account that enables me to connect one or two devices to the Exosite platform.

Embedded devices using Exosite are responsible for pushing data to the server and pulling data from it. Devices use simple HTTP requests to accomplish this. This works great in my home setup because the attic monitor can work through my firewall, even when my Internet provider occasionally changes the IP address of my cable modem. Figure 2 shows the network diagram.

Figure 2: The cloud-based network

VIRTUAL USER INTERFACE

Web-based dashboards hosted on Exosite’s servers can be built and configured to show real-time and historical data from connected devices. Controls, such as switches, can be added to the dashboards to push data back down to the device, enabling remote control of embedded devices. Because the user interface is “in the cloud,” there is no need to store all the user interface (UI) widgets and data in the embedded device, which greatly reduces the storage requirements. Photo 4 shows the dashboard for the attic monitor.

Photo 4: Exosite dashboard for the attic monitor

Events and alerts can be added to the dashboard. These are logical evaluations Exosite’s server performs on the incoming data. Events can be triggered based on simple comparisons (e.g., a data value is too high or too low) or complex combinations of a comparison plus a duration (e.g., a data value remains too high for a period of time). Setting up a leak event for one of the sensors is shown in Photo 5.

Photo 5: Creating an event in Exosite

In this case, the event is triggered when the reported ADC voltage is less than 2 V. An event can also be triggered if Exosite doesn’t receive an update from the device for a set period of time. This last feature can be used as a watchdog to ensure the device is still working.

When an event is triggered, an alert can optionally be sent via e-mail. This is the final link that enables an embedded device in my attic to contact me anywhere, anytime, to alert me to a problem. Though I have a smartphone that enables me to access my e-mail account, I can also route the alarm message to my wife’s simpler phone through her cellular provider’s e-mail-to-text-message gateway. Most cellular providers offer this service, which works by sending an e-mail to a special address containing the cell phone number. On the Verizon network, the e-mail address is <yourcellularnumber>@vtext.com. Other providers have similar gateways.

The attic monitor periodically sends heartbeat messages to Exosite to let me know it’s still working. It also sends the status of the water sensors and the current temperature in the attic. I can log in to Exosite at any time to see my attic’s real-time status. I have also configured events and alarms that will notify me if a leak is detected or if the temperature gets too hot…

The complete article includes details such about the Internet engine, reading the cloud, tips for updating the design, and more.  You can read the entire article by typing netenabledcontrol to open the password-protected PDF.

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